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Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price, Basic Books, US $35.00, Pp 624, August 2020, ISBN 978-0465096985

All of us have heard of the Vikings, who lived from approximately 750 to 1050 CE. Many of us have read one or more articles on them. Some of us have also read books of them. Even if we never read anything on them, we do have some idea who they were and what they did. What most of us do not know is why they did what they did and how they changed world history. Over just three centuries, the peoples of Scandinavia known to us as the Vikings transformed the world in ways that are still felt today. In Children of Ash and Elm, Neil Price says that they changed the political and cultural map of Europe and shaped new configurations of trade, economy, settlement and conflict that ultimately stretched from the eastern American seaboard to the Asian steppe.

The Vikings are known today for a stereotype of maritime aggression – those famous long ships, the plunder and pillage, the fiery drama of a ‘Viking funeral’. Price says that there is some truth in this, but the Scandinavians also exported new ideas, technologies, beliefs, and the practices to the lands they discovered and the people they encountered. In the process they were themselves altered, developing new ways of life across a vast diaspora. The many small-scale kingdoms of their homelands would eventually become the nations of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark which are still with us while the traditional beliefs of the North were gradually subordinated by Christianity. That initially alien faith would fundamentally change their view of the world, and the Scandinavian future. Children of Ash and Elm is the story of how the Vikings changed the  world.

Prices says that the Viking Age — and not just in Scandinavia — was a time of horrifying violence and equally awful structures of institutionalized, patriarchal oppression. Men and women, along with people who adopted a remarkably broad spectrum of different gendered identities, lived within and through these networks — building, perpetuating, and supporting them, but also tearing them down, resisting and subverting, creating anew.

The same Viking Age was also a period of social innovation, a vivid and multi-cultural time, with considerable tolerance of radical ideas and foreign faiths. Price says that It was a period of flourishing arts, with an explicit acceptance that travel and cultural encounter broadened one’s outlook. He writes, “If people bring today bring anything away from a meeting with the Viking Age, it should be this. We should never ignore or suppress the brutal realities behind the clichés — the carnage of the raids, the slaving, the misogyny — but there was much, much more to the Vikings. They changed their world, but they also allowed themselves to be altered, in turn; indeed, they embraced those connections with other people, places and cultures.” Price says that their most respected values were not only those forged in war but also — stated outright in poetry — a depth of wisdom, generosity, and reflections. Above all, a subtlety, a certain play of mind combined with resilient refusal to give up.

Children of Ash and Elm is an important addition to the existing scholarly literature on the Vikings. Most books tell us how the Vikings lived and what they did, but Neil Price goes beyond what we already know and explores the context in which they lived. He also explores what the people who came after them inherited from them. He shows that the Vikings left an indelible mark on the later Western history. Children of Ash and Elm is a well-researched scholarly work even lay readers of history will enjoy reading. If you are interest in history, Children of Ash and Elm will help you better understand history. Neil Price is without doubt an accomplished historian.

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